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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanI’ve had a curious relationship with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s a rollercoaster, really, and it all comes down to the ending of the book and the terrific movie adaptation by Alfonso Cuarón. You see, when I first read Prisoner fifteen years ago I didn’t really like it at all. I thought the ending was weird and long. But then Cuarón’s incredible movie version came out, and I was spellbound. Suddenly it all made sense. Suddenly, I was a Prisoner convert. Now it’s been years since the last time I read Prisoner or saw the movie. Oddly enough, 15 years later things went full circle when I reread the book. I’m back to thinking the ending is long. And, well, seriously overly complicated.

Prisoner has its charms, for sure. Harry still has that reckless disregard for the rules I had so much trouble with in Chamber of Secrets, but here he’s forced to struggle with it as a character flaw. When he doesn’t get in trouble for blowing up his Aunt Marge, he doesn’t celebrate. He’s suspicious and unsure why everyone is letting him get away with it, even though he didn’t really mean for it to happen (which really only exacerbates how utterly ridiculous the whole Dobby situation in Chamber was). When he sneaks into Hogsmeade with Ron, Harry is forced to wrestle with questions of what it means to put himself in potential danger when so many people have risked their necks to keep him safe (not to mention that his parents died to keep him alive in the first place). This is exactly the nuance that was missing from Chamber. Harry can be reckless, impulsive, and flout authority. That’s fine. Heroes have a tradition of possessing those characteristics. But it’s up to Rowling as a writer to force him to deal with the consequences of those actions and still come down on the side of good. Otherwise he’s just an entitled douchebag. Otherwise he’s no better than Draco Malfoy.

Prisoner is also a marked improvement in terms of plotting in some ways, but not all. There are less gaping plot holes than in the previous two books. Still, there’s the ending, where all that falls completely apart. I mean completely. Even at 18, when I was much more willing to go with the flow on things, I couldn’t swallow all the complicated machinations necessary in order to make this work.

Try to follow this logic if you can. So we’re expected to believe that Harry’s parents weren’t betrayed by Sirius Black after all, they were betrayed by their other friend who also happened to secretly be an animagus, Peter Pettigrew. And when Harry Potter lived and Voldemort seemed to die, Pettigrew panicked because he thought Death Eaters would blame him for Voldemort’s demise and kill him. And he knew the only person who knew he was the one who actually betrayed the Potters, Sirius, would come looking for revenge, so he used that as an opportunity to fake his death and frame Sirius for betraying the Potters. What really happened is that Pettigrew cut off his own finger and blew up a portion of the street, killing a bunch of muggles (yet somehow leaving Sirius unharmed?), then transformed into a rat and disappeared. And what do you know, he ended up living as a pet in the Weasley house. Just a total fucking coincidence that he ended up in the house where the kid who would grow up to be Harry Potter’s best friend was living. No seriously, it’s a total fucking coincidence. He didn’t plan that. And it’s a total coincidence that Ron inherits Scabbers as a pet just as he begins life at Hogwarts, which means Pettigrew ends up sharing a bedroom with the boy who almost killed his master. Have I mentioned that this is the result of a total fucking coincidence yet? Oh, as for why Pettigrew never revealed himself before? Or tried to kill Harry? Or turn Harry over to the Death Eaters? Vaguely defined reasons that come down to “I hadn’t decided Ron’s rat was an agent of evil until now, so…”

Sirius, meanwhile, was so depressed over the loss of his best friend, and blamed himself anyway, so he let himself be taken to Azkaban without a trial when he was found standing in the wreckage with Pettigrew’s finger. He survived all those years in Azkaban without losing his mind by transforming into a dog. You see, Dementors (the guards of Azkaban) don’t have eyes so they can only really sense things, and Sirius being a dog confused them–particularly when he decided to escape (aaaaand no one figured that out when he was in jail for eleven years?). And at no point did Sirius try to explain the truth to anyone because depression, man. Also anger at Pettigrew, whom he has earmarked for revenge, and apparently if he tried to explain the truth that would get in the way of revenge? Better to stay in the most hopeless prison on the planet just in case a chance for revenge should come up. You never know, man. It’s like that book The Secret says. Well, it worked, because what do you know, the Minister of Magic himself visits Sirius Black in Azkaban and leaves him a copy of The Daily Prophet that just so happens to have a family photo of the Weasleys on the front page (they won a prize and went to Egypt. It was a slow news day, what do you want?). So Sirius recognized Ron’s pet rat immediately, and knew Pettigrew was at Hogwarts palling around with the boy who lived, undoubtedly plotting something nefarious. And he immediately, and without any trouble at all, breaks out of Azkaban by transforming into a dog and sneaking right by the Dementors.

NONE OF THAT MAKES ANY SENSE. ZERO THINGS MAKE SENSE.

Even worse? Attempting to explain this makes the ending extremely talky and awful. There are about a hundred pages of Professor Lupin explaining and explaining and explaining, with Sirius interrupting every few pages to say “hurry up! I want to get to the point! I’ve waited long enough!” Which is actually hilarious, because as a reader that is exactly how I feel trying to get through all the nonsensical backstory. It would be different if any of it made sense, but instead it’s like a shoddy attempt to go back and blow your mind by making you rethink everything you thought you knew. Because here’s the thing: making Scabbers an agent of evil would have been a fun twist if Scabbers had been given more of a presence in the previous books, or if there had been a trail of breadcrumbs leading to this that you could go back and follow now that you have all the information needed to complete the picture. Instead, going back, it’s clear there was no plan at all with Scabbers. It’s just a random act of plotting. As for the rest, we never even knew the details of James and Lily Potter’s deaths before. You can’t make us rethink what we thought we knew if we never knew the details in the first place, so you might as well spend a little extra time coming up with a backstory that makes sense.

Just getting everyone to the final showdown takes some backbreaking plot contrivances. Professor Lupin just happens to be watching the Marauder’s Map, which reveals Peter Pettigrew to him as Sirius drags Ron into the tunnel under the Whomping Willow as Harry and Hermione give chase. Lupin leaves the Marauder’s Map open on his desk and Professor Snape shows up just in time to see everyone disappear down the tunnel, so he can follow them. More ridiculousness. It makes everything that follows that much harder to swallow.

The movie streamlines the ending a lot and twists some of the details around so that Lupin was always helping Sirius–there isn’t so much effort to get them on the same page. Many of the flaws are still there, but Cuarón’s decisions streamline it so much that it becomes so much more fun. You’re much more willing to go with the flow. There’s also less of the plot contrivances in getting everyone to the finale.

One thing is certain, though: for the first time, Harry is the hero on his own. No deus ex machina to save him. It appears that there is for a moment there, but in the end it turns out that Harry literally saved his own life thanks to a little time travel (and some help from Hermione). But this is huge: in Sorcerer’s Stone Harry passed out at the end and Dumbledore rescued him, and in Chamber of Secrets he was only able to fight the basilisk because Dumbledore’s pet phoenix showed up just in time to help him. For the first time, Harry is his own hero. That’s huge. In only three books he’s grown up to become an independent hero in his own right. Which is important, because he wouldn’t be able to face the challenges ahead any other way.

Grade: B-

Read on for more about this installment. Or check out my Harry Potter page for more. Up next: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

New Characters

Prisoner of AzkabenYou probably wouldn’t expect him to show up until Goblet of Fire, but tragic hero Cedric Diggory actually makes his first appearance as a Quidditch opponent to Harry here. So does Cho Chang, who will blossom into more of a romantic interest for Harry in the next book… In bigger news, Harry finds out about his godfather (and the titular prisoner), Sirius Black, who isn’t actually the murderous traitor everyone believed him to be. Sirius is Harry’s only family that he likes (the Dursleys being, well, the Dursleys), but unfortunately the reunion is shortlived as Sirius is forced to go on the lam with another fugitive, the Hippogriff Buckbeak, who had been sentenced to death unfairly after Draco Malfoy accidentally provoked Buckbeak into breaking his arm… We also have a Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor who will actually have a lasting impact on the series in Professor Remus Lupin, who will eventually return to join the fight against Voldemort… We also have a new teacher in Professor Trelawney, who teaches the specious art of Divination and only occasionally manages to make a genuine prediction. Practical-minded Hermione quits her class, but Harry and Ron will continue to take her classes… Peter Pettigrew, a friend of Harry’s father who betrayed him to Voldemort and went into hiding, is revealed to be the true identity of Ron’s rat Scabbers. Pettigrew will play an integral role in Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire. Finally, we meet the super creepy guards of Azkaban: Dementors. They wear hooded cloaks, have scabby skin, feed off of joy and laughter and turn it into misery, and they can suck your soul out through your mouth. They’re also remorseless and hard to control. No big deal.

New Information

Voldemort was looking for James and Lily Potter the night they were murdered, but at this point we still don’t know why (and Harry didn’t even think to ask why, conveniently). They attempted to hide themselves and Harry using the Fidelius charm, which buries a secret within a designated secret-keeper. The secret cannot be revealed or exposed unless the secret-keeper decides to reveal it. Voldemort was able to find the Potters because they were betrayed by their secret-keeper. Sirius Black, who was James Potter’s best friend, had agreed to be their secret-keeper, so he took the fall for this. It was easy for Pettigrew to frame him. The twist was that they knew that someone in their crew (Sirius, Pettigrew, and Lupin) had been feeding information to Voldemort. For reasons that make absolutely no sense except that the betrayal wouldn’t work otherwise (okay, something about how Sirius thought Lupin was the traitor and was worried he’d come after Sirius for the information about where the Potters are hiding), Sirius decided to pull a switcheroo at the last second, so he convinced James to make Pettigrew his secret-keeper instead. The only people who knew that Pettigrew, who had been popularly been regarded as a hero, was the Potter’s actual secret-keeper were the Potters themselves, Sirius Black, Pettigrew, and Voldemort.

As I said, we still don’t know what all this means, so right now it’s just a lot of sturm and drang. Most of the drama about the identity of the secret-keeper and the betrayal of the Potters is actually a clever distraction on Rowling’s part. Because you walk away feeling satisfied by the flavor, and you don’t actually realize you didn’t get any meat. She didn’t tell you why Voldemort was looking for the Potters! Why would he want to kill them? There’s just a passing shrug that such a thing wasn’t uncommon at the time, but that’s not quite satisfactory. After all, Voldemort seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to track down the Potters. But Rowling manages to make you not really worry about it. That’s a problem–and a revelation–for later.

Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher

Professor Remus Lupin (AKA “Moony,” as he was known during his Hogwarts days) is a favorite in the Harry Potter franchise, and for good reason. He’s the first Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who actually teaches the subject. Well, to be fair we never get a sense of how Quirrell taught the subject, but the general idea was that he was too afraid of the subject he taught to be very effective at teaching it. Even though he had a giant Voldemort zit on his head. Anyway, Lupin is the real deal. He’s a teacher who has a lot of knowledge of his subject, but also trusts his students and respects them enough to let them engage in practical lessons. He gives them the opportunity to engage and learn and try things. He challenges them. He’s the very definition of a good teacher.

Unfortunately, he’s also a werewolf, and when Snape reveals his nature to the students at the end of the term Lupin resigns rather than put Dumbledore in the difficult position of defending him to an angry mob of parents concerned for the safety of their children. Like Harry, Lupin is also forced to question what the consequences are for being reckless when someone has put their neck out for you. His time at Hogwarts as a student almost killed Severus Snape, and his time as a teacher not only led to the escape of Peter Pettigrew, but Lupin could have killed Harry, Ron, Hermione, or Sirius Black. All because he rushed out of the castle without drinking his potion to prevent him from transforming that night. Yes, he could make a case that he would manage his care better, but Lupin is doing the noble thing by walking away and sparing Dumbledore the fight in the first place.

Lupin is also a crucial link to Harry’s past, being a friend of Harry’s parents, particularly his father. Lupin is something of a father figure himself to Harry, providing a tender presence that nevertheless challenged Harry to be a better wizard. That’s why Lupin tends to tower above all others who held this post. Grade: 5/5

Special Artifacts or Spells

Speaking of Lupin and his old buddies Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, and James Potter (or Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, as they were known as students at Hogwarts), they were some merry pranksters indeed during their student days. They created The Marauder’s Map, which was one of the keys to the success of Fred and George Weasley in sneaking around Hogwarts. It looks like a blank old piece of parchment unless you hold our wand to it and say “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” which will unlock an intricate map of Hogwarts and every passage and room therein. Not only that, it will tell you the location of everyone inside the castle. All done sneaking around, or need to hide the map from a professor so they don’t uncover the secrets? Tap it with your wand and say “mischief managed.” It’s as simple as that. Paired with the invisibility cloak, this map will be crucial to Harry’s success in later books… Just as we saw Harry’s Nimbus 2000 broomstick get outstripped by Draco Malfoy’s Nimbus 2001 in Chamber of Secrets, there’s a new fancy gadget on the block: the Firebolt. It’s the fastest, most accurate broomstick ever made, and every boy in the wizarding world is drooling over it. Harry gets one for Christmas, so take that Malfoy. Firebolts will be all over the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet of Fire, but after that Rowling will lose interest in keeping up with the latest broomsticks. Or, you know, the kids will have other things on their minds. Like trying to stay alive when Voldemort is coming after them… We’ve already discussed the Fidelius Charm at length, so just take a look over at ‘New Information’ if you’re curious… Harry spends a good portion of the book trying to learn the Patronus spell, which repels the Dementors by calling forth a patronus, or protector. Harry’s patronus, when he finally calls it at the end of the book, takes the form of a stag, which happens to be the form his father took as an animagus (hence his nickname ‘Prongs’). Harry’s ability to master the spell signifies not only Lupin’s skill as a teacher, but Harry’s growing ability as a wizard… Stranded witches or wizards can call upon The Knight Bus, a purple double decker operated by Stan Shunpike, to get them where they need to go. Harry manages to call it after storming out of the Dursley house after blowing up his aunt Marge in order to get to Diagon Alley… Harry periodically encounters a black dog, and when Professor Trelawney spies it in his tea leaves he finally finds out what it signifies. It’s the Grim, a very, very dark omen of death and destruction in the wizarding world. Of course, it turns out the dog was Sirius Black in his transformed state the whole time, but don’t tell Trelawney. She’d be crushed to have been wrong.

The State of Harry’s Legacy

Just fine. No one thinks anything is wrong with Harry in this book, they’re much more concerned with protecting him from Sirius Black, who they think is out to kill him.

Dumbledore Wisdom

Dumbledore is curiously absent for the vast majority of Prisoner. He only really shows up at the very end to give Harry and Hermione a clue as to how they might free Sirius from his cell and save Buckbeak at the same time. Even so, when he does show up the first seeds of disappointment are sown because for the first time Harry is forced to see Dumbledore as someone who can’t solve everything. Which is actually good, because that also means our boy wizard is growing up. No more deus ex machinas for him!

As such, there are no quotable bits of wisdom from dear old Albus in this book. And while it’s far from damaging to Dumbledore’s reputation, in hindsight one could view this as the first indication that Dumbledore is just a man–and as fallible as everyone else.

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This entry was posted on November 22, 2015 by in Book Review, Series Rundown and tagged , , , , , .
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